Ashleigh Parsons is the co-founder of the enormously popular, inspired, and sustainable L.A. restaurant, Alma, and the founder of Akasa Community Outreach, a non-profit wellness program that partners with public schools in low-income communities around Los Angeles. The ACO curriculum is designed to educate youth about growing, harvesting, sourcing, and cooking healthy food. We caught up with Ashleigh on the east side of Los Angeles to learn more about the ACO mission, unplugging from all the noise, and her own path to wellness.
Can you tell us about your path and how you became involved in food and wellness?
I think it began in high school, though subconsciously. I was an angsty high school and college student with a handful of insecurities, an uncertain idea of who I was and the difficult struggle with anxiety and depression that many of us unfortunately experience during this developmental stage in our lives. I remember being severely depressed my sophomore year of college and walking into an Eastern healer’s office on my campus. I had tried a psychiatrist and explored the idea of prescriptions and while I absolutely believe there’s a time and place for Western Medicine, this approach wasn’t working for me. I think the appointment lasted twenty minutes if that. The woman looked at me and said, “You’re numb. Go home, and activate two or three of your senses at a time. Take a hot bath with herbs that smell good, walk outside and feel the coldness of the bleak, upstate New York winter. And so on.” I took her advice. It worked. Soon after, I became very interested in Yoga and Mindfulness. After college when everyone around me was pursuing focused, high paid jobs, I had no idea what I wanted to do so I pursued a one month intensive yoga teacher training program, moved to San Francisco, and got my first job as a Program Coordinator at a free after-school program in the Tenderloin.
How did Akasa Community Outreach come about? Was it an idea you had been brewing on for a long time or did it evolve organically?
I remember when I was in college my mom told me I could never be a school teacher because I wouldn’t be able to follow the rules. She was right. As curious as I was about education, I have always been drawn to the learning that happens beyond the classroom. My first job as an after-school program coordinator and yoga teacher in San Francisco in 2008 helped inform these interests. During the years I lived in San Francisco, I became very passionate about education and food and the intersection of these two seemingly different worlds. I remember learning about Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard for the first time, reading Mark Bittman’s Op’ed’s in the NY Times, and studying Michael Pollan. Slow food and wellness became woven into my work and I became obsessed with ideas of food deserts, food justice, and food access. At that time, I was responsible for Saturday programming at the Tenderloin After School Program (TASP). I was 21 years old and somehow in charge of taking 30 students, ages 5 to 18, on field trips around the city each week. Not knowing the city very well, I took them where I liked to go, including Baker Beach, the California Academy of Science, and local farmer’s markets. I remember vividly riding the bus with a group of them to the Ferry Building. We wandered around the farmers market, tasted Frog Hollow pears, munched on Alice Water’s favorite dates (the big medjool dates), sucked on honey sticks. We returned to the chaos of the Tenderloin and almost meditatively prepared a fruit salad with our purchases from that day. The students were unanimously enthusiastic and wanted seconds, and then thirds. ACO was born that day but it would take three more years to incubate and create the idea. In fact, sometimes I feel like it’s just now getting to a place (8 years later) where it is a fully actualized concept.
What has surprised you the most since launching Akasa Community Outreach?
The support. ACO has been a labor of love that has existed on a shoestring of a budget. But through volunteer involvement and community engagement, we are able to reach 200 low-income students, ages 5 to 18 on a weekly basis. I am constantly blown away by the outreach that Los Angeles has to offer.
Has the current political landscape affected the ACO mission?
Nothing has changed regarding the mission. Our commitment to providing a Wellness Curriculum to low-income youth and their families has existed since day one. But the current political landscape has made us even more dedicated to the cause and even more willing to speak up.
What do you believe has become the most undervalued within today’s public educational system?
Creativity, wellness and the encouragement to play. I believe as adults we should remember these important staples as well. A recent article in T Magazine described the German Robinhood Waldkindgarten schools where “toys are replaced with the imaginative use of sticks, rocks and leaves.” I can’t help but wonder why we don’t have more accessible schools like this in our cities and rural neighborhoods across the US. In my ten years working in the field of education, I have witnessed the power of play and what it does to our creative energy and community engagement.
ACO has a true focus on community and sustainability. Has this influenced your feelings towards Los Angeles?
A commitment to community, sustainability, the health of our Mother Earth and the wellbeing of the next generation are the only ways (I believe) to create a more peaceful world. The City of Los Angeles has a lot of work to do but each day, I am inspired by the community of individuals that are working around the clock to make positive change. Los Angeles feels like home to me and I can’t really imagine myself anywhere but here.
What has been the most challenging and rewarding part of starting your own business?
Challenging: Lifting it above water. There are days where I feel like I should just give up on it all.
Rewarding: Lifting it above water. There are other days where I can feel the tangible, positive change that ACO is having on our community of students and their families.
Can you share some of your favorite beauty and wellness rituals?
Keep it simple! Coconut oil, jojoba oil, weekly scrubs and hydration. Morning walks and yoga (movement in general) are key, too.
When life becomes chaotic, how do you remain grounded?
Go inward. I don’t think (we as women, although perhaps maybe men, too) are encouraged enough to go inward and be quiet. There’s so much noise: Instagram, Stories, Twitter, email, updates, meetings, repeat... that we can get lost in a narrative that’s not even ours. Recently I’ve become very committed to carving out time for quiet. Sometimes I even tell friends that I’ll be offline for a day or two so they can support and encourage the mediation and space. In these moments of hibernation and rest, I tune in to my inner voice, fears, and goals. I journal, swim, move my body, meditate, rest. I think we would be much more satisfied beings if we took a few more beats for ourselves. As selfish as that may sound, I really believe it’s true.
Do you have a favorite season?
Autumn. It reminds me of being young in New Jersey and apple picking with my family. I enjoy spring, too. The transitional seasons (autumn and spring) are where the magic happens.
What’s your go-to, unfussy meal for busy evenings at home?
Cabbage salad. This past winter, we grew about 15 rows of cabbage on the farm. I can remember a day where ten or so volunteers paused from working on the farm just to munch on green and purple cabbage. It’s one of my favorite memories from the entire year. During that time, I became obsessed with making cabbage salad on evenings where I was really busy. It’s a favorite recipe and I’m sharing it here. It takes about 15 minutes (if that) to prepare.
What’s on the horizon for Akasa Community Outreach?
SO much! ACO classes resume in September and we welcome volunteers to become involved. But first we must focus on our ACO Back to School Night Benefit happening September 2nd (RyX will be performing, a surprise DJ, silent auction and more!)